Sunscreen Tips for Children

As we enter the dog days of summer, families across the South Shore are packing up the little ones and heading to the beaches, lakes and water parks. But there’s one item on the packing list that can cause confusion for parents of young children: Sunscreen.

Parents and grandparents know that keeping kids safe from the sun is important. The Skin Cancer Foundation says that even one blistering sunburn during childhood more than doubles a person’s risk for developing melanoma later in life. But with lots of conflicting information online about the best sunscreens for children, parents have a lot of questions. Here are a few we hear often.

Which sunscreen is best for my baby? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents avoid using sunscreen on infants less than six months old. Babies should avoid sun exposure as much as possible by being placed in the shade and wearing lightweight long-sleeved pants and shirts, as well as a wide-brimmed hat. If there’s no shade and your baby isn’t covered up, you can apply a small amount of mineral-based sunscreen to a baby’s exposed skin. (We recommend mineral sunscreens because they sit on top of the skin and reflect the sun's rays and are not absorbed into the body—keep reading for more details.) Your best bet is to keep your smallest family members in the shade.

Which is safer: Spray or lotion sunscreens? The debate about the safety of spray-on sunscreen rages on. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started investigating the risks of inhaling the ingredients in sunscreen in 2011, and in 2013 warned against using aerosol sunscreens near open flame, as the alcohol in the aerosol can catch fire.

With that said, the sunscreen that you can manage to apply to your child as he or she rushes to get outside may be the best one. Just be sure to apply away from bonfires and grills and choose a variety that you rub into the skin to ensure adequate coverage. Avoid spraying sunscreen directly on your child’s face—spray it on your hands first, then rub it in—to minimize the potential risks of breathing in sunscreen.

Are there ingredients parents should avoid? The active ingredients in sunscreen fall into two broad categories—mineral and chemical. Some research shows that the chemical filters can mimic human hormones, and some people have skin allergies to them. While research into these ingredients proves no conclusive risk to children, organizations from Consumer Reports to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have urged caution when using sunscreen that contains oxybenzone. Apply a little sunscreen to your child before going out to ensure he or she has no allergic reaction to the product and ask your doctor about the risks of chemical sunscreens for your child.

Should I use “organic” or “natural” sunscreens instead? Our patients have frequently mentioned Consumer Reports’ recommended sunscreens—and that organization says that none of the solely mineral-based sunscreens it tested made its list. However, EWG ranks several natural sunscreens among its best for kids.

No wonder there’s so much confusion!

If you do choose a natural sunscreen, know that the mineral components can separate from the inactive ingredients in the tube. Be sure to shake the product well each time you use it to maximize its effectiveness.

If you’re still worried about your child’s sun exposure, the best way to keep kids safe from sunburn is to avoid the strongest rays of sun. Stay in the shade between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. You can also consider requiring that your child wear a rash guard when enjoying the water on these hot summer days.

Dr. Mairead Wilson is a pediatrician at South Shore Medical Center and is currently accepting new patients. She sees patients in our Norwell office. To learn more about her and other South Shore Medical Center doctors who are accepting new patients, visit our website. If you’d like to register yourself or a family member as a new patient, call 781-681-1686 or request a call from a new patient registration specialist.


Learn more about Primary Care at South Shore Health.